CHAMPAIGN, ILL. — As I watched a game on TV during a recent trip home in a suburb just west of Chicago, my friend's 18-year-old nephew raised his pant leg to show me his strange jewelry: A house arrest monitoring unit wrapped tightly around his dark ankle.
Back home in Maywood, Ill., the prison anklet is a sign of the times. Last year, my friend's younger brother was released from a juvenile detention center. My own 15-year-old cousin has had his brush with crime. He has just finished physical rehabilitation after being shot six times.
In some ways, these cycles of violence that cloud so many of our communities have become ordinary details of daily life. But that hasn't stopped it from affecting our collective mental health, the black male psyche especially. Suicides are on the rise among young black men.
Ending their own lives seems to have become a common solution for young black men wandering through the maze of thug life, alcoholism, and drug addiction. According to a report from the US Surgeon General's office, suicide is the third leading cause of death for African-American males between the ages of 15 and 24. These and other pathologies seem to be consuming the friends and relatives with whom I grew up.
While I don't personally know anyone who has committed suicide by putting a gun to his head, I bear witness to a slower form of it each time that I am home.
When I travel the 150-mile trip across a stretch of Interstate 57 surrounded by cornfields in central Illinois, I hope to be refreshed by my visit home. I rarely am.
Instead I am greeted by the sight of greasy spoons, liquor stores, and old elementary-school peers standing post on street corners along Madison Street or farther north on St. Charles Road, which has become a thoroughfare for drugs and prostitution. Discarded liquor bottles and empty "sandwich bags" – used by drug dealers to package their product – pepper residential streets.
The longer I am away from my lower-class roots, the more it seems to me that young black males are committing a kind of cultural suicide.
The answers to this problem are not immediately clear. Carl Bell, a Chicago psychiatrist, is among researchers advocating increased research on black men and the issue of suicide.
Exhibiting a sense of frustration, rage, despair, alienation, and fatalism are among the risk factors or warning signs of suicidal behavior, Dr. Bell says. Other red flags include a history of alcohol and substance abuse and impulsive or aggressive tendencies, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
The public health community should do more to prevent this behavior, says Sean Joe, a University of Michigan professor who has researched the issue of self-destructive behaviors among young black males. But the social stigma of mental illness and suicide, particularly in the black community, remains a huge barrier to wellness.
This is what troubles me. There are few open and honest discussions in the black community about suicide or the pattern of suicidal behaviors that so many young black men engage in almost daily.
In my 'hood, one encounters the neon lights of the liquor stores many more times than any signs leading the way to centers that offer professional mental health services.
"There's a joke that blacks are afraid of two service providers that knock at the door," says Dr. Joe. "One [is] the police, and the other is the psychiatrist, because they'll both lock you up."
During my visits home, the feelings of hopelessness slap me in the face. Sometimes it is the "hand to hand" exchanges I witness on street corners as young men conduct drug transactions. Sometimes it is the invitations to share a sip of a "40" or to smoke a "blunt" as I confide to my friends about the stresses of life beyond the 'hood. At other times, it is the public confessionals of young men on the sidelines of basketball courts that I find so jarring, the stories of having had unprotected sex, stories that win smiles all around instead of gasps.
"Man, my life is over," one friend told me recently, believing that his conviction on drug charges eliminates college as a future option.
Like other friends, he, too, was filled with questions and was short on answers.
While we may all be searching for a way out of this mess, what is becoming apparent is that the answer does not lie with the use of drugs, alcohol, or guns; that the answer is not to bury our heads in the sand or to keep treating the issue of mental health in the black community as taboo; that part of the answer, at least for me, is gravitating toward life, toward hope, toward education.
"Man, I'm looking for a job," my friend told me during my recent visit home when his nephew had shown me his home-monitoring anklet. "But ain't nobody trying to hire me."
A half-empty bottle of beer stood on the floor in front of the television. In another room nearby, his son, nieces, and nephews played. I went to the bathroom and returned a few minutes later to the smell of marijuana burning.
"I'm about to go ahead and get out of here," I said to my friends, shaking their hands as I left. "I'll get at you when I'm back in town."
I climbed back into my car, turned the key, and slipped the gear into drive. I headed back across the cornfields, back to school, back toward hope.
• Mario D. Parker just completed his master's degree in journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.